Can a hit YouTube channel thrive after its founder departs?
The King of Random had 8 million YouTube subscribers when Grant Thompson suddenly decided he didn't want to create videos anymore.
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About three years ago, Larry Shapiro got the kind of phone call a talent manager never wants to receive. It came from Grant Thompson, a YouTuber he’d been working with for about a year. “I live in Los Angeles,” Shapiro told me in a phone interview. “I’m out on the weekend, doing my errands, and I get a call from Grant, and Grant is a very spiritual person who places a lot of value in his faith. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I was spoken to last night, and I was told not to do this anymore.’” Thompson went on to explain that he no longer had any interest in creating YouTube videos and wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids.
By that point, Thompson’s YouTube channel, The King of Random, had 8 million subscribers. Each video averaged over a million views, and some of his most popular had generated tens of millions. Shapiro was in the process of turning the channel into a huge business, but now its only star was saying he wanted to walk away from it all.
Luckily for Shapiro, Thompson’s sudden epiphany wasn’t entirely unexpected. He had been complaining of burnout for months, and the two were in the process of hiring several people to help with the behind-the-scenes production.
One of those hires was Nate Bonham, a sculptor by training who was brought on to help Thompson build out the machines and scientific experiments that appeared in his videos. Shortly after speaking to Shapiro, Thompson then rang up Bonham to deliver the bad news. “He said, ‘hey, I’m really sorry, but I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m just planning to shut this whole channel down. Do you think you can get your old job back?’”
Bonham figured he probably could get his job back, but he didn’t want to give up on this one just yet. “So I suggested that if he didn’t want to be in videos anymore, I could try being in the videos,” he told me. This idea caught Thompson by surprise, and, after mulling it over for a few moments, he agreed to give it a try. Bonham was on vacation and had stepped away from his family to take the call. “When I came back to them I was like, ‘I have no idea what my life is going to be like when I get home.’”
Within days, Bonham started showing up in King of Random videos — sometimes by himself, other times alongside Thompson. “At first Grant’s day-to-day involvement was high, because I didn’t know how to do anything,” Bonham recalled. “But it was always his goal to get hands off where he could step away from the channel, so it was a fairly progressive move from showing me how to do everything, to backing off where he didn’t have to do anything for months at a time.”
Thompson had built his entire channel on the back of his experiments, and this was his biggest experiment yet: could a YouTube channel with a massive following thrive after its founder departs?
It’s a question that’s becoming increasingly relevant as the creator economy matures. Many of today’s biggest social media stars built their huge audiences through round-the-clock publishing that required long workdays. While this pace is sustainable in your teens and early 20s, it’s not uncommon for it to eventually lead to burnout, especially for those who want to settle down and start a family. This has led to more and more creators attempting to pivot their businesses so they are less dependent on their personal brands; some even want to sell their channels and walk away entirely.
But will 8 million people who have watched a channel over a span of five years simply accept the introduction of a new host? In 2017, Bonham found himself thrown into the deep end, not knowing whether he’d sink or swim. Over the next three years, he had to find his creative voice, build a scalable team, and reckon with the tragic death of his mentor.
In a phone interview, both he and Shapiro walked me through how they handled the transition and built The King of Random into a multi-platform media company with several revenue streams. Let’s dive into my findings:
The birth of a channel
In the earliest King of Random videos posted a decade ago, Thompson’s face rarely appears; a video titled “How to Make Slime (Ninja Turtle Ooze),” which currently has over 20 million views, features only his hands and voice narration as he walks the viewer through the various ingredients and modifications. Most of these videos are less than five minutes long and seek to illustrate some cool-yet-simple concept, like how to light a fire using a clear plastic bag of your own urine or instantly freeze a bottle of water.
The consistent throughline for The King of Random — which spans from its first videos to those produced today — is a sense of wonder at what can be accomplished with household items and a basic understanding of science. I initially assumed, while watching these videos, that Thompson had a background as some type of engineer; it was only later that I found out that his pre-YouTube career consisted of flying planes and selling real estate. “Grant didn’t start out wanting to make a big popular YouTube channel,” said Shapiro. “He started it because he had stuff he was curious about and wanted to explore. He was documenting his process as he did that, and when he would learn about something interesting, he’d do a video explaining it or demonstrating it, and that often involved building something to show off that principle.”
Thompson’s first big hit came in 2013 when he uploaded a video on how to make a miniature metal foundry. The video attracted millions of views and triggered a substantial boost in channel subscribers. Encouraged by his success, he switched to a consistent publishing schedule, aiming to put out a new video every Tuesday. In late 2013, he promoted his first video sponsor (Audible). In January 2014, he hit 1 million subscribers and celebrated by jumping out of a plane while wearing a tuxedo.
For the next few years, Thompson continued to simply narrate the videos while keeping the camera pointed away from his face, but starting in 2016 he became a much more visible presence on the channel. That year, he uploaded a Q&A video where he explains that he spent the previous five years working eight to 12 hours a day, six days a week. “I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally giving it everything I’ve got….honestly I’m getting tired,” he says. “I need to take a little break.” He also reveals that he just quit his day job.
In a follow-up Q&A, Thompson expresses his desire to hire a production crew and “make the channel bigger than myself.” He soon began regularly collaborating with other large YouTubers and increased the output of videos, eventually achieving the breakneck pace of one video per day. He also started thinking about how to generate more revenue from the channel.
That’s when Larry Shapiro came into the picture. He had started his career in the late 1980s in film production, working mostly on music videos. “At the time, music video directors like David Fincher and Michael Bay were shaping the next generation of Hollywood production values,” he said. Later, he joined CAA as an agent. “I launched the video games division there. I was the first agent in Hollywood to work with video game designers.”
In the 2010s, Shapiro got into talent management, taking a job at the multi-channel network Fullscreen. From his perspective, YouTube creators were poised to reshape the entertainment industry, much in the same way as those music video directors had in the 90s. “What’s brilliant about online creators is they don’t need a network or studio to validate them,” he explained. “They don’t need that connection.” In 2015, he struck off on his own to start his own talent management company.
It was a few years later when Thompson began casting about for a manager. “When I met Grant, he lived in Utah, and he very much wasn’t into Hollywood culture,” Shapiro said. “He was interviewing a couple potential managers, and they were all in Los Angeles, and I was like, ‘you know what, are you available to do this in person? I’ll fly out. Let’s not do this over the phone.’” Thompson was impressed with the initiative and ended up hiring Shapiro soon after they met.
The timing was fortuitous, as this was around the time that advertising agencies really began to wake up to the marketing influence of YouTubers. “It was when the MCN business was starting to erode and crumble,” said Shapiro. Multi-channel networks, by combining the reach of thousands of YouTubers at once, were supposed to bring in more revenue than a channel could generate on its own, but they ended up providing little additive value. “And so a lot of channels started to break away from the MCN, but they needed help with brand deals. They needed help understanding the entertainment landscape. That’s when agents and managers started to work with these amazing creatives coming out of YouTube.”
By late 2017, The King of Random was one of the largest channels on YouTube, with over 8 million subscribers, but Thompson was losing his motivation to continue running it. “What he wanted to do was spend more time with his family — he wanted to spend more time with his boys,” said Shapiro. By that point he had four of them. “When any creator reaches this point, there’s a pivot. They either shut down the channel entirely, or they find a way to scale it.”
Thompson’s initial inclination was to go the first route, but Shapiro and Bonham eventually nudged him toward the latter. In September 2017, Bonham appeared for the first time in front of the camera.
A not-so-smooth transition
Bonham’s introduction to King of Random’s viewers was rather sudden, and he’s the first to admit that his lack of onscreen experience showed. “I was very robotic and wooden and bad at looking at the camera,” he said. “It took me awhile before I started feeling comfortable.”
For the first video Bonham appears in, Thompson doesn’t even introduce him; they just immediately launch into an explanation on how to make bread with wheat, sticks, and rocks. From there, Bonham started showing up in videos sporadically — sometimes by himself, sometimes alongside Thompson.
This transition period lasted only a few months. In January 2018, Thompson uploaded a video titled “What Happened to Grant? EXPLAINED!” In it, he announces that Bonham is taking over as the full-time host. “A lot of people ask if I’m coming back,” he says. “That’s still an open question.” He reveals that he’s hired out a team of about 10 people who, collectively, will be taking over the day-to-day duties of running the channel. “I didn’t get into YouTube to become famous or make a lot of money. I got into YouTube to explore my passions and my hobbies.” He then brings up his four children. “This is the time when they need their dad. I need to be there for them, and I don’t want to miss out on those golden years because once my kids grow up, that’s the end.”
From there, Thompson pretty much disappeared from the channel, only popping up in occasional videos, and Bonham took over all onscreen duties. At first, he simply mimicked Thompson’s presentation style, right down to wearing a white lab coat. “I don’t think I realized at the time how bad it was,” he recalled. “It was only after I had been on for about six months that I looked back at my early videos and saw how much I was struggling. I was just awkwardly talking to the camera.” Watching from the sidelines, Shapiro piped in regularly with his own advice. “I remember Grant calling me up and asking how Nate was doing,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Nate’s doing great. It’s going to take awhile for him to find his voice and get his rhythm. But have him take the lab coat off, because you have a 6’2 lean host in this white lab coat, and it just doesn’t work.’”
Bonham didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome from the entire King of Random community. “It’s hard to say how much of people’s reaction was to my presenting ability and how much it was because I wasn’t Grant,” he said. “There was a lot of opposition to me in the beginning because I was new and different.” But after about three months, he began to feel more comfortable in his own skin, and the channel started steadily growing again. Almost every video he starred in hit the 1 million view mark, and there were several — “How to make magic sand!”; “What Fire Crackers Do in Gasoline?”; “How To Hydro Dip ANYTHING!” — that generated at least 5 million views.
Thompson’s vision for expansion didn’t end there. Soon after Bonham took over hosting duties, Thompson and Shapiro set about finding him a cohost. “He put out a casting notice, and people started to send in videos,” recalled Shapiro. At the beginning of the process, Bonham reached out to Calli Gade, a friend and former colleague, because he thought she’d be a good fit. “But I didn’t tell anyone at the channel that I knew her until Grant had already chosen her as one of his top four candidates,” he explained. “At that point I told him that I do know Calli and have worked with her before.”
From the time Gade first appeared on the channel, in October 2018, she and Bonham had instant chemistry, and they began to form their own dedicated fanbase within the King of Random community. Thompson, who was mainly working behind the scenes by that point, began to think about ways to expand the business beyond YouTube. “At the time, a lot of creators were writing books, so I talked to a book agent out of New York and we did a book deal,” said Shapiro. The two also wanted to get more serious about launching an entire line of merchandise. “That’s when we had to build the back end of the office out.”
Soon, The King of Random had developed a fairly sophisticated production operation. “We shoot in South Jordan, Utah, and then the footage gets uploaded into the cloud,” explained Shapiro. “It’s pulled out of the cloud by an editor in the Philippines that’s been with us for years, and then we have another editor in Eastern Europe. Eventually it makes its way back to [COO Hunter Stewart]. He looks at the final edit, makes the final changes, and then we have a team that does the thumbnail and the titles and then it goes online.”
With Calli on board, Thompson spent even less time in front of the camera. But though he had achieved his goal of removing himself from the day-to-day duties of running the channel, he still played a crucial mentorship role behind the scenes.
But then in July 2019, tragedy struck. The sheriff's department in Washington County, Utah received reports that a paraglider had gone missing. “Several volunteers gathered and, with the help of a helicopter, they located his body,” the New York Times reported. Grant Thompson was dead at the age of 38.
The news was a gut punch, not only to the King of Random staff and fandom, but to the entire YouTube community. In the days following the accident, the channel published video tributes from some of the platform’s most popular creators, including Mark Rober and iJustine. Following Grant’s death, his wife Janae received sole ownership of the company, and she soon asked Shapiro to come on as CEO.
Shapiro told me that, by this point, The King of Random was no longer just a YouTube channel and had grown into full-fledged media company. He compared it to late night or daytime television where a network has created a repeatable format that can be reliably produced five times a week. “That’s what we do. We are daytime television for 15 to 25 year olds in the science and education genre.” Not only had the brand spun off onto other platforms like TikTok and Facebook Watch, but Shapiro also began talking to various TV networks about possibly creating a King of Random show.”
With every new channel added, Shapiro didn’t just want to simply repurpose content from YouTube, and it soon became apparent that he needed to hire more onscreen talent. “We worked with a television casting director, someone who does reality TV, and she did a nationwide search,” said Shapiro. “We literally spent four months going across the country and finding people who were doing online content who would go great with Calli and Nate.” About a year ago, The King of Random introduced two new hosts: Kennen Hutchison and Grace Dirig. Soon, the company was generating tens of millions of views each month across YouTube, Facebook Watch, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.
Today, The King of Random reaches over 15 million subscribers and generates revenue into the eight figures. Not only did Grant Thompson successfully pass the torch, but the company’s reach has doubled since he stepped away from regular hosting duties. Its success will no-doubt serve as a blueprint for other creators who want to scale their operations beyond themselves.
It’s an achievement that Thompson would be proud of, especially given the channel’s humble beginnings. During my research for this article, I came across an old interview he gave where he revealed that his initial goal for YouTube was to simply create 100 videos. “I thought, ‘I’ll do that experiment. I’ll make 100 videos and see how they do and if it’s worth it, I’ll keep going and if it’s not, I’ll stop. But in the process, I’ll learn and share all of these things that I’m out to learn for myself anyway.’”
Ten years and thousands of videos later, the channel still carries that ethos, and millions of diehard fans are now more knowledgeable about how the world works because of it.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.